What did it take last Saturday to win pro bowling's final event of the winter tour, the prestigious Tournament of Champions? After surviving a bizarre, nationally televised stepladder final disfigured by 14 open frames, 11 splits, two gutter balls, one foot fault and one winning score of 159, Norm Duke would say it took a lot of luck. But luck hardly explains the strange career of the 30-year-old Duke, the leading candidate for PBA Player of the Year, who won his first pro title at 18 and then went winless for eight years because he found it difficult to bowl in front of television cameras.
Saturday's victory in Fairlawn, Ohio, which Duke sealed with a 217-184 victory over top qualifier Eric Forkel, is Duke's first major championship and his fourth win in as many months. With his title-free years behind him, Duke is back on the course he set for himself 20 years ago. Duke, who grew up in his parents' bowling center in Mount Pleasant, Texas, has been bowling since he was eight, but he didn't get serious about the game until age 10. That's when he beat his first touring pro. "His name was Bugsy Moran," says Duke of the man his father lured to the center for $100. "And he played the wrong shot. I beat him 221-205. That gave me the dream."
A few weeks later young Norm announced to his mother that he was going to be a pro bowler and beat Earl Anthony on national TV. His mom laughed. At 10 Duke was even smaller than his current 5'5", and his ambition seemed simply cute. Duke wasn't kidding, though. He bowled so much that his mom sometimes found blood from his thumb scattered on the lanes. At 13 he started playing for money. "I'd play pool every Sunday," he says. "We had $5, $10 and $20 tables, and I'd start at the $20 table and work my way down until I had played everybody. Then I'd take whatever I'd won and lose it on Friday nights bowling in pot games."
At 18 Duke joined the PBA tour and became the youngest bowler ever to win a PBA title when he took the 1983 Cleveland Open. One of the four bowlers he defeated in the nationally televised stepladder final was the venerable Anthony. "I'll never forget that," says his mom. "Every other bowler must have been over six feet tall. Norm looked as if he had just run out of the crowd. There was a real David and Goliath aspect to it."
David wouldn't win another tournament for almost a decade. The Saturday-afternoon TV finals, with their harsh lights and heightened tensions, became his private hell. "I just could not bowl on TV," he says. In 1991, during his eighth year of title drought, Duke questioned his commitment and read and reread such motivational books as See You at the Top and In the Mind's Eye: Enhancing Human Performance. He also worked at becoming a more versatile and creative bowler.
When Duke isn't competing, he and his wife, Karen, like to golf, fish and play the stock market. Sometimes Duke leaves the tools of his trade behind. After indulging the press with a number of posttournament photo sessions on Saturday, he carefully placed the 16-pound ball he had been holding into the arms of a preadolescent fan. "There you go," said Duke. "That's the ball that won the Tournament of Champions, and it's yours."
Who knows? He may have inspired the child to become a pro bowler who could one day beat Norm Duke on national TV.